UK Government policy on defence has become increasingly muddled, to the extent that it makes the Charge of the Light Brigade look sensible. In contrast, in Scotland, the SNP is increasingly articulating policies which are both coherent and credible. To reinforce that credibility, the party should also now support NATO membership, which it could do without changing its non-nuclear stance.
The first priority for any country’s defence policy should be to protect its own domestic territory. That means defending its borders. Yet in recent years, both under the Coalition and under the previous Labour Government, UK defence policy has been neglecting this primary responsibility, its approach skewed by trying to cut expenditure while simultaneously engaging in expensive foreign deployments of dubious merit.
The priority for the UK, as presently constituted, or for an independent Scotland in future, is maritime defence. Both Scotland and the UK have a very long coastline, and only very short land borders. The latter do not constitute a serious defence risk –unless you believe that the Irish Republic is likely to invade the North, or that an independent Scotland would be subject to English invasion. We have a large number of island communities, as well as substantial, important offshore assets that also need protecting, in the shape of oil and gas and, increasingly, renewable energy installations.
Defending these coasts and offshore assets requires not just ships, but also a maritime reconnaissance capability, and it’s here that UK defence policy is a particular shambles. That results in part from the previous Labour Government’s decision to remove the Nimrod MR2 from service, and from the current Coalition Government’s decision to cancel its replacement, the Nimrod MRA4. That leaves a huge gap in the UK’s ability to carry out maritime reconnaissance, as well as its ability to conduct long range search and rescue. Other countries that have an interest in defending the same seas as the UK, including Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Spain, have all managed to retain these capabilities, despite the current financial crisis. The sheer folly of this policy and the risks that it poses to the UK’s and to Scotland’s defence, were set out clearly in April, in a submission from Angus Robertson to the Commons Defence Select Committee. The full submission can be found at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmdfence/writev/1918/fms07.htm
One problem, of course, is that the UK is choosing to spend its defence budget on other things, including the war in Afghanistan, and on buying aircraft carriers that won’t actually carry any aircraft for a number of years. If anything epitomizes the current muddle in UK defence thinking, it is the latter: surely the whole point of an aircraft carrier is that it’s supposed to carry aircraft.
But if the UK is failing to provide for the proper defence of these islands, could an independent Scotland provide for its own defence needs?
Defending Scotland’s coast should not, in principle, be prohibitively expensive. We need only to look to Canada, the country with the world’s longest coastline, and so also needing a sizeable maritime capability. Canada spends around 1.5% of its GDP on defence, far less than the UK, which spends roughly 2.7%. The Canadian Navy doesn’t have any aircraft carriers – with or without aircraft. You don’t actually need these hugely expensive capital ships for home defence. Air cover for that purpose can be provided for by land-based aircraft. You only need aircraft carriers if you want to conduct operations overseas. Nor do you need carriers to protect the Olympic Games from potential terrorist attack, any more than you might decide that the best way to provide security for the Balquhidder Highland Games is to post a gunboat on Loch Earn.
But mention of Canada raises the issue that it is a member of NATO, and hence the question of whether an independent Scotland should be a member, too.
The SNP has had a long-standing opposition to NATO membership, but is reported to be reconsidering that position. That would not be universally popular within its ranks, or amongst others who are not members of the party but support independence. A major factor in their objections to membership is opposition to nuclear weapons at Faslane, and concern about participation in wars outside Europe, such as Afghanistan or Iraq.
However, a number of NATO countries are non-nuclear. A few of them are nominally so, but still have nuclear weapons stationed on their territory. But 80% of NATO’s 28 member countries do not. Nor would there be any obligation on an independent Scotland to do so. Similarly, NATO membership would not oblige an independent Scotland to provide troops for operations outside Europe, unless it chose to do so: Belgium didn’t participate in first Gulf War, for example. NATO is primarily a defensive alliance.
NATO membership wouldn’t be absolutely essential to an independent Scotland. Ireland and Sweden are not members. But Denmark, Iceland and Norway are, and in protecting the waters round our coasts, NATO membership would allow Scotland better to coordinate our activities with those nations. It would make sense for Scotland to join.